CAMPAIGN-I: Spotlight on: Express Newspapers - Will The Express brand suffer for the lack of an online offer? Has Desmond slipped up by selling off the Express websites?

Perhaps it's just that time of year, but there's a pantomime feel to just about everything written about events these days at Express Newspapers.

Perhaps it's just that time of year, but there's a pantomime feel to just about everything written about events these days at Express Newspapers.

And, yes, it's a fairly grown-up pantomime - Jack (or should that be Dick?) and the Beanstalk with more than a little nod in the direction of Asian Babes in the Wood.

This is the story of Daring Dick, a man who, as part of a pounds 125 million deal to buy some newspaper properties, also acquired a number of other valuable assets that just happen to be crucial to the long-term health of his new newspaper brands.

And it's the salutary tale of how he was persuaded to sell these sacred cows for the princely sum of one bean.

The assets in question are the Express websites, including Express.co.uk and Sport-Live.com. The Dick in question is Richard Desmond, the new proprietor of Express Newspapers. The bit about the one bean isn't true, actually - the real figure was pounds 1.

National newspapers are never anything less than hostile to upstarts wanting to join the ranks of the proprietorial classes and it is no surprise to see Desmond routinely portrayed as a cross between an arch villain and a slapstick buffoon. Journalists at the more pious end of the spectrum are particularly horrified that a pornographer could find such an influential place at the head of their entirely wholesome profession.

But when the websites were 'let go' for such a derisory sum, there was a sharp intake of breath from a wider audience - including, obviously, the online world. In the storm of criticism that followed, we have seen the paradoxical nature of the Desmond campaign. He is portrayed as a fool who knows not what he does, while also being painted as a cynical schemer who has found a way to dump a loss-making division (an estimated pounds 8 million a year at the last reckoning) while wriggling out of any obligations to its 46 staff.

Whatever. More to the point, maybe it's actually time to question an article of faith underlying much of this - that newspaper brands absolutely must have an online identity. After all, isn't the online economy in general filled with doom and gloom?

David Stubley, the managing director of Outrider, says: 'You have to be absolutely clear about what your newspaper is famous for and build your online presence around that. If you have a reliance on classified recruitment advertising, then you absolutely have to be there. If you aren't, the job portals will have you for lunch.

'The one that has done it well is The Guardian, which has managed to build on the fact that it has franchises in several distinct sectors But it's true that many newspapers haven't done all that well - they've just reformatted content and dumped it online.'

Stubley argues that newspaper brands should move forward, not retreat further. Caroline Simpson, a managing partner of Zenith Media, isn't so sure. She says: 'Does it damage a newspaper brand if they are not doing much online? Not at the present time. There is an argument that you have to make the mistakes yourself to learn from them. The counter argument is that you let everyone else make the mistakes and then come along and profit from them when you are ready.'

Simpson agrees that to make anything of the online world, a brand owner has to be clear about its strengths, which is one of the things that Desmond is going to address at The Express. But at the moment she doesn't believe they have a clear idea of who their readers are, let alone who they should be in the future. Until they do, they might be wise to take a step back.

She adds: 'There isn't the panic about the internet that there was a couple of years ago, so there's perhaps less incentive to retain a token presence for largely defensive reasons. The online world might not like this at all, but they live and breathe the internet. The truth is that a deal with The Express does not live or die by the fact that it does or doesn't have an online presence.'

Which makes sense, doesn't it? Only superficially, Simon Waldman, the head of Guardian Unlimited, argues: 'Yes, you have to be clear about the web. It's true that no-one these days is going to make a load of money overnight. It's also true that changes in consumer behaviour are slow and deliberate. But it's incontrovertible that people are moving online in ever-increasing numbers and there is an emerging generation for whom internet-enabled mobile phones and personal digital assistants are no longer gizmos but an everyday part of their media repertoire. If you don't do it, you are going to cut yourself off from that and what that says, especially to an audience under 40, is extremely damaging to your brand.'

He concludes: 'I just don't think it's true that you can choose when to come in. Rupert Murdoch thought he would wait until the internet was a bigger business, but he has found that he can't do it. It doesn't work that way. It gets more and more expensive every year. Whichever way you look at it, what The Express has done cannot be portrayed as a bold move.'



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